Reprinted from "Pops" McLaughlin's new book, The Pros Talk Embouchure, released in the fall of 2002.

The Ideal Trumpet Embouchure

John H. Lynch

When Mr. McLaughlin asked me to write something about my concept of the ideal trumpet embouchure I was pleased, because I've never put down my thoughts in a single cohesive treatise other than to some extent in my book and its addendum. And, unless you have both the addendum and the book, the remarks in the book may seem a little disjointed and not quite reflective of what I've learned since it's publication in 1984. Although consistent and operationally correct, they do not, I feel, give the depth of understanding that is necessary for an optimally effective application of the ideas. Possibly I can supply that necessary insight here and clarify my thoughts with this brief monograph, written from the viewpoint of a person who is striving to improve his embouchure.

When trying to improve our trumpet embouchure, it is constructive to state the objectives that we wish to acheive. If we don't value the altissimo range or the ability to play for long periods of time (endurance), the problem of selecting an effective embouchure becomes a much easier task. In fact, many (almost all) possible embouchures will probably work to some extent and are seen being used by many players who just play occasionally or rarely above high C. If, on the other hand, endurance, flexibility and high range are important, we can say categorically that we can benefit by adopting certain practices that tend to enhance these capabilities. It is in this spirit that we approach the examination of the ideal embouchure, i.e. with the intention of identifying those components of embouchure that affect the process, to see how they operate and cooperate so that our own technique may be adjusted in order to achieve our goals. We will confine our discussion to endurance, flexibility and high range, and will exclude tone, attack, breath control etc. from our deliberations, because tone is subjective and ultimately no physical criteria are available that would enable us to quantify improved tone other than audience consensus or personal preference; similar remarks may be applied to attack etc. which must remain the subject of furthur study. The techniques suggested herein will not interfere with these elements of playing in my opinion.

It is remarkable to see that the trumpet can be controlled to such an extent as to produce the variety of music that it does when the player's only contact with it is with his lips and his left hand. It has helped me to bear this in mind because it suggests that any adjustments to improve embouchure would probably be physically very small, and subtle. To stay focused, we also note in passing that our efforts toward improvement are, in most cases, not related to the requirements of the music that is to be performed. In fact, it may be argued that altissimo playing, for example, represents more of an athleticism and a projection of power, than music as we normally think of it. I would tend to agree somewhat with this and would guess that there is not a significant segment of the earth's civilized population that would enjoy hearing much more than one triple C. It is helpful then to note this distinction when we consider our goals so that arguments, for example, that "high range (endurance, or flexibility) isn't everything", will have no place in this discussion. We are not doing anything musical here. We are instead simply trying to develop a physical methodology to achieve the well defined ends of increased range, flexibility and endurance. And because of this, suggested embouchure improvement techniques will be accompanied by physical rationale and not obscured by extraneous musical preferences. To this end we proceed as follows.


The embouchure can be divided into two parts, a static part which includes any preparatory elements prior to playing, and a dynamic part which includes anything related to the operation of this embouchure when actually playing. First, let's look at the static part.

(1.) The Mouthpiece Set

The mouthpiece set is critical, because it is not usually changed while playing (except possibly for some extremely rare musical requirement such as a very high single note or a pedal tone). If the set were required to vary, flexibility would suffer or be lost altogether during any kind of faster execution. The horizontal placement of the mouthpiece relates primarily to dental configuration and "in the center of the lips" is to be preferred if possible with the upper and lower teeth "evened up" as much as possible. Vertical mouthpiece position is another story, however, and is fundamental to a successful embouchure. I have outlined in a short article (1.) that is available on the website,

the reasons to position the mouthpiece vertically with about two thirds of it on the bottom lip. Others have identified the mechanism of trumpet sound production and so this won't be considered in detail here, except to say that it has been demonstrated (2.) that for most of the trumpet range (let's say for middle C and higher) it's the player's top lip that is moving back and forth, opening and closing the aperture and admitting puffs of air compression followed by rarefactions that together, excite the air in the horn bore to produce sound. The bottom lip remains essentially stationary throughout this activity. Its function is to "push up" against the top lip to control, to varying degrees, the effective mass of the "vibrating" portion of this (top) lip. In controlling the effective mass of the vibrator, it controls the pitch; the more the upward push, the smaller the upper lip mass, and the higher the pitch (there is also the associated second order effect of increased lip surface tension, caused by the same increased between lip pressure, which distorts the lips and stretches the surface tissue which, in turn, elevates pitch somewhat). This is a fundamental truth of trumpet playing and was known as far back as 1942. A detailed explanation for this can be found in the internet article (1.) and in reference (2.), so for brevity sake will not be repeated here. Let's just say that specifically placing the mouthpiece vertically "one third on the top lip and two thirds on the bottom lip" makes the high register significantly easier to execute, and thus is one component of our ideal embouchure.

(2.) Left Hand Grip

If too much pressure is used, flexibility will be impaired immediately and both endurance and range will suffer shortly thereafter. There are several passive things that can be done that will reduce pressure in addition to actively trying to use less of it (which is usually difficult, because pressure is more or less instinctive). One thing is to divert it to the bottom lip. When the horn is being played, say, below middle C, where very little pressure is required, vibration of the bottom lip, if any, won't be impaired. When the horn is played above middle C and we have the onset of pressure, the bottom lip is no longer moving and withstands any pressure diverted to it very well without affecting performance. This pressure diversion is accomplished by holding the trumpet with the left hand near the bottom of the valves, typically with the last three fingers of the left hand below the third valve slide. With this grip, any left hand pressure tends to rotate the horn bell downward around a fulcrum on the bottom lip. As a bonus to this pressure diversion, this rotation then tends to "free up" (reduce pressure on) the top lip and to give slight additional "upward push" to our bottom lip which aids our high register. So, in addition to diverting pressure from our top (vibrating) lip to our bottom (stationary) lip, it also ensures top lip freedom and enhances range capability. Thus, although left hand grip is not a component of embouchure in the strict sense of the word, it acts in conjunction with our ideal embouchure and for this reason, left hand grip may be considered a second and very important and active ingredient of our ideal embouchure.

(3.) Pucker

A third component of our ideal embouchure can be found in the category of pressure fighters. This is the so called "pucker". If we tend to "pucker" our lips when playing, slightly more lip tissue tends to be forced between our teeth and the mouthpiece. In particular, this is most effective on the bottom lip, because this is the lip that is absorbing most of the pressure. An active way to effect this is to try to "keep a thick lip", or to try to maintain "shock absorber lips", i.e. try to achieve a more "rubbery" or "looser" connection to the horn. This is what we are striving for by puckering. If we manage to keep a little more lip tissue between the teeth and the mouthpiece, we will greatly improve our flexibility, our range and endurance. So pucker is a third and very valuable component of our ideal embouchure.

(4.) Lip Elasticity

Another component of the ideal embouchure can be found in the elasticity of the tissue that is "vibrating". For higher register playing it behooves us to use "whiter", "springier", more elastic tissue. Red lip tissue tends more toward flaccidity while white tissue tends more toward elasticity in trumpet embouchures. A player will use neither exclusively, but will tend to play on some intermediate tissue that is neither red nor white, but somewhere in the transition area between. The bias here, however, should be more toward the whiter tissue i.e. more toward the outside fringes of the color transition area of the lips. The way this is accomplished in the ideal embouchure is to curl the bottom lip back in slightly in general for higher work (G just above the staff and higher). For notes lower than this, the curl may be allowed to relax. The slight "curling in" action has no acoustic effect on the bottom lip (since the bottom lip is not vibrating) other than to possibly add a slightly firmer base for performing its "pushing up" activity. The effect on the top lip, however is to be pulled in slightly (since the lips don't slide on each other but "stick together"), thus moving the vibratory action more toward firmer, "whiter" tissue. Some players get used to the feel of this by practicing alternating low and high notes. Thus, a slight, somewhat variable, bottom lip inward curl is a fourth very effective component of our ideal embouchure.

(5.) The Tongue Position

The air flow in general, should not be inhibited in any way. If the tongue is raised significantly, the air stream will gain velocity at the point where it is constricted by the tongue. But immediately downstream of this, where the cross section to the flow recovers, it will regain its "pre-tongue" velocity, but reduced by friction and eddy losses and will enter the aperture somewhat handicapped. The player might sense this as a slight increase in resistance and may overcome this resistance increment by blowing a little harder which could conceivably tend to raise the pitch. I feel that this is not a well controlled mechanism, however, and that the embouchure can be much more effectively used for this purpose. For this reason, and in order to avoid inhibiting air flow unnecessarily, I suggest, as a fifth component of our ideal embouchure, that we maintain a more or less, flat, tongue position for all our playing.

(6.) Aperture

Some consideration should also be given to the aperture. While playing, the lips will be touching or at least in very close proximity. If this were not true, i.e. if the lips remained sufficiently separated during playing, the aperture could be considered the equivalent of "blown open", and would possibly produce no sound at all. Some players may have experienced a "blown open" aperture during which they are blowing vigorously, but no sound ensues. The problem of open vs closed aperture, however, is one of how the lip separation is assigned initially i.e. before any sound is attempted. Even with an essentially "open" aperture set (relatively large hole before any sound is attempted) the lips will tend to pinch (move) much closer together (or touch depending on the initial set) immediately, when we start playing. The physical description and mathematical modeling of this dynamic system as the air is set into motion appears to be complex and still a matter of controversy that may someday be resolved with high speed photography. But to my knowledge a definitive analysis and satisfying model have yet to be found. This does not, however, prevent us from making an empirical observation. Very high playing lead players seem to benefit significantly by using a somewhat more open aperture set. This is, in part, because the "blow" changes somewhat above 1500 hertz (about G above high C). The reflection point for sound waves inside the horn bore, is found somewhere in the bell section of the horn depending on the note being attempted. This point moves progressivly toward the end of the bell, as we attempt higher and higher pitch, until it moves completely outside the bell at around G above high C. At this point we have no reflection (of sound waves), and we are then playing a sort of "megaphone" rather than a trumpet as we might normally think of it. Up here (above high G), because the sound waves are not being reflected longitudinally (back and forth between the aperture and the reflection point inside the bell), as they normally are, they tend instead to be broadcast directly beyond the bell, essentially as soon as they are generated. When this happens, the sound (above high G) necessarily (physically) tends to noticeably "thin out" compared to notes lower than high G where longitudinal vibration is present, and we are therefore getting help from the horn. For this reason i.e. much thinner sound above high G, I feel that we might get a little more (of the needed) air to thicken and give a little more body to the sound up here, if the aperture is opened somewhat i.e. made "less cramped", even though more air will be required. High register sound also (G above the staff up to high G) seems to be generally a little "bigger" (more open, louder) when we open the aperture slightly. This is a subtle effect and may not be noticed except by more sensitive players. For the bulk of our playing then, I feel that although a little more closed aperture may give a shade better overall dynamic response and be generally more easily controlled, a slightly more open stance, even though it may require a little more air, seems to produce more robust lead and altissimo skill. Harry James used the artifice of putting his tongue between his lips and into the mouthpiece to set the aperture. I have found this to be about right for me. It produces what might be called a "manageably open" aperture. Since this isn't a very precise procedure, it is suggested that the player experiment to find the most effective configuration unique to himself and his intended playing. The sixth and final feature of our ideal embouchure is then the aperture set (initial, before sound production). This should possibly be slightly more "open" especially if vigorous high register and altissimo (above high G) playing is anticipated. For orchestral or other work that demands exceptional dynamic precision and accuracy, a somewhat smaller, more conventional aperture set can be more effective.

(7.) Conclusion

This concludes the description of the static part of the ideal embouchure which deals with the initial set up before actually playing anything. A total description would not be complete, however, without a few remarks about how the embouchure functions dynamically, in an actual playing situation. In the following and final section, the mechanics of operating this embouchure are briefly outlined. Also included are some ideas describing how its sucessful operation can be cultivated.


(1.) Air

"Choking" tendencies (closing the larynx and restricting air flow), which are frequently accompanied by "grunting" as when doing something perceived as physically very difficult, are also often present when attempting a high note. When blowing air through through the lips, "Diaphram blowing", tends to correct this and promote "non choked" playing. Diaphram blowing, here means, that the air movement should resemble that that occurs when saying Aahhh. Choking tendencies can also be retrained to a more open larynx operation by loud playing.

(2.) Pitch

When we want the pitch to go up, we must concentrate on increasing the "between-lip" pressure. Between-lip pressure here can be thought of as, "vertical pressure", as distinguished from, "horizontal (left hand) pressure". Slightly increased horizontal pressure will be required for higher pitches in order to ensure the air seal which tends to become compromised when higher air speed and volume associated with high playing are used. But this, and any other horizontal pressure that may be present, can be partially relieved by rotating the horn bell downward very slightly (10 degrees or so) when playing above high C. This action, combined with the suggested left hand grip, tends to divert left hand "horizontal" pressure to the fulcrum located on the bottom lip, tends to "free up" the top lip and tends to push the bottom lip up. Frequently vertical (between-lip) pressures can also be enhanced by contracting the lip muscles, so as to push the lips forward in a quasi, "puckering" configuration, and pulling the corners of the mouth down, as in frowning. This puckering action also serves also to increase flexibility and endurance. This is probably not, however, the only way to achieve this. As long as the same end effect is realized (i.e. maintaining a thicker bottom lip), the method can be considered successful. As stated earlier, it should be remembered that all of the techniques suggested herein represent physically very small adjustments and should be pursued accordingly.

(3.) Practice

To avoid using increased air flow as a substitute for between-lip pressure, moderately fast lip slurs (trills), over a fifth (which could not be executed by varying air pressure) or greater interval, can be practiced. Also we note that two octave arpeggio practice will tend to "range despecialize" this embouchure and promote flexibility. As a parting comment it is finally observed that pressure also, is insidious and tends, with time, to encroach on any severely demanding high performance. A lip vibrato, if practiced regularly, over the complete dynamic and acoustic range, will tend to ensure that the lips are thick enough, and therefore, that any horizontal pressure that may have been used, has not been excessive. This is very important. Uncontrolled pressure can defeat an otherwise excellent trumpet player. Ability to retain control of the lips, is the cornerstone of all good trumpet playing.


John H. Lynch   


1. Lynch, John H.: Vertical Mouthpiece Position and Range ; (approximately 1999), available on, www.asymmetric-mouthpiece.com

2. Henderson, Hayward W.: An Experimental Study of Trumpet Embouchure ; Journal of the Acoustical Society of America; Vol. 13 pp 58-64 July 1942